Sweet Saranda: Cheap Albanian Getaway for Beaches, Ruins and Gourmet Food

Sweet Saranda: Cheap Albanian Getaway for Beaches, Ruins and Gourmet Food
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When trying to find a place to meet around Greece and Albania, Simone and I had a surprisingly hard time. I was coming from Nepal and she was based in Athens, Greece with only a four-day vacation. She could fly cheaply and easiest to Western Europe, which meant I would need to retrace my steps significantly to return to Turkey. Furthermore, Western Europe doesn’t interest me the same way other places do- I wanted to be riding a camel in Petra, Jordan or exploring Egyptian temples while tourism is still cheap. She brainstormed a few places to compromise, choosing cheap, quirkier destinations like Izmir, Turkey (I’ve been there), Tbilisi, Georgia and Saranda, Albania. I knew absolutely nothing about Albania so I jumped at the last suggestion, and I’m certainly glad I did.
Simone and I made Saranda our home-base for our three-days together and a weekend is all you need to see to major sites in the area. If you’re a more leisurely traveler, Saranda is a cheap and enjoyable place to lay on the beach and eat gourmet food at unbeatable prices.

View of Saranda, Albania from our window

View of Saranda, Albania from our window

Day 1: Gourmet food, seaside siestas and sunset panoramas
We arrived at Saranda around lunchtime on a mini-bus, trying to decode the cryptic directions to our hostel. “Make a left at the bank with the palm tree”, “stop at the creperie and ask for Tomi”… it seemed straightforward until we were surrounded by a sea of banks and creperies, punctuated with dozens of palm trees and people kept pointing us in opposite directions. Fortunately, someone at a newsstand offered to call Tomi for us, offered to share his shaded stall and buy us an ice cream while we waited. Tomi arrived on a bicycle, which he used to wheel Simone’s bulging duffel and assured us that coming to our rescue was “no problem, no problem” and welcomed us warmly to the city. The private room we booked through SR Backpackers, actually had an upgraded location in a hotel overlooking the Bay. After plopping down our bags and breathing in sea breezes, we made lunch our next mission.

Lunch at Mare Nostrum, Saranda, Albania

Lunch at Mare Nostrum Restaurant, Saranda, Albania

As with most things in Albania, the local restaurants aren’t well documented… Even if you can find the name of an eatery online, it rarely has an address and never has a menu. Simone had spotted one of the Tripadvisor restaurants the way in, so we headed to Mare Nostrum (Address: Jonianet 20, Saranda) to pursue their menu of Greek, Italian, Albanian and seafood dishes. Since the tourist season in Saranda does not start until July, we had the place to ourselves. We giggled at elderly tourists lumbering by the seaside path in excessive sun hats then a magical appetizer appeared! Some sort of crispy bread accompanied by a creamy herb dip, soon joined by the sesame-seed encrusted fried feta cheese balls and fig jam that we ordered. Just when we thought our meal couldn’t get more delicious, the main course arrived. I had the vegetarian roasted vegetable salad with cheese. After over a month of eating cooked vegetables drowning in curries, this dish was exactly what I needed: crispy vegetables topped with roasted peppers, eggplants and topped with salty Albanian white cheese. Simone ordered some chili-lime shrimp, which looked a little scary when they arrived on skewers, peering at her with beady eyes, but she also raved about her meal. The waiter proved that dreams do come true when he surprised us with a complimentary dessert: some sort of banana pie, crystallized in a caramel glaze. To top it all off, the meal cost about $7 USD.

Saranda at sunset, view from Lekursi Castle

Saranda at sunset, view from Lekursi Castle

We took our food coma straight to the beach, which we had almost exclusively to ourselves. We felt better about the eerily vacant promenade and shoreline when we later learned than Albanians take siesta from 3-5 PM. After our siesta on Saranda’s pebbly shores, we put on our walking shoes and hiked up the 5 meters to Lekursi Castle, which they converted into a restaurant. It took longer than expected but we made it in time to enjoy breathtaking views of the city and the sea during sunset. If you go during July/August (the tourist season), you may be able to catch traditional live music. Once the sun went down, we decided to head back down the hill. Lucky for us, a taxi driver offered us a free ride and we used the time that we would have spent walking for a drink on the waterfront.

Butrint, a world UNESCO site in southern Albania

Butrint, a world UNESCO site in southern Albania

Day 2: Day trip to Butrint ruins and Ksamil beaches
If in Saranda, Butrint is cultural “must-see” and UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s an ancient port from Hellenistic to Ottoman times, supposedly containing some of the most remarkable archaeological sites in the Adriatic Sea area. After seeing a few ruins in Greece and Turkey, I don’t get too excited about crumbled amphitheaters and agoras but I enjoyed reading about the stages of occupation. The site has hosted a Greek colony, Roman city and Byzantine occupation. Even the Venetians occupied the area for a time before marshes covered the site in the late Middle Ages. We had the place to ourselves and we spent a couple hours exploring the extensive grounds, the small museum and booths from local craftspeople.

Ksamil, beautiful beach in Southern Albania

Ksamil, beautiful beach in Southern Albania

From there, we had a quick bus ride to Ksamil, claimed by many to be the most beautiful beaches in Albania (we’ve also heard good things about Himara and Borch… these two can also be accessed by public bus from Saranda but there’s only one bus per day). We were dropped on a random touristy strip with no idea where we were supposed to go but in minutes, we were able to rest on white sandy beaches and swim in unoccupied turquoise water. There’s not much more to say other than this beachy paradise is definitely worth visiting!

Blue Eye a natural phenomenon where a 50-meter deep pool gives the spring a beautiful color

Blue Eye a natural phenomenon in southern Albania, where a 50-meter deep pool gives the spring a beautiful color

Day 3: Day trip to Blue Eye
If we knew what we were doing, Blue Eye would have a perfect stop on the bus ride from Gjirokaster to Saranda but since we didn’t know what we were doing, we made it a seperate excursion. Most of the time, the public buses ran on schedule but not this one. In trying to figure out what was going on, we befriended an Albanian and an American guy, who currently live in Tirana. Instantly friends, we decided to go for coffee while waiting for the bus and convinced the boys to come with us to Blue Eye. Blue Eye is a water spring which has a 50+ meter deep pool that causes the bubbling water to look deep blue. There’s not too much to do at the site itself but we enjoyed sticking our toes in the pool and hanging out with our new buddies.
Song of the Moment: Moby- Almost Home (Sound Remedy Remix)
If YOU want to go to Saranda: There’s no airport in Saranda but you could fly into Tirana and take a bus to Saranda (~ 6 hours, $13 USD), fly into Corfu, Greece and take a ferry (~30 minutes, 19 euros) or take a bus from somewhere else in Greece or Albania.  We went in mid-June which was the perfect time to have the place to ourselves and good weather (although it’s sunny in Saranda 300 days a year so you’ll probably get lucky too)- come during July or August if you want to see the place in full swing!
Mare Nostrum and SR Backpackers earn my highest recommendations for places to eat and places to stay, respectively.  Tomi, the owner of SR Backpackers will happily get you oriented to all the places you need to be with a map and many reassuring repeats of “no problem, no problem”.  He’ll also cook you delicious home-made meals each morning.
If YOU want to go to Ksamil/Buhrint: Catch the public bus 20 km to Buhrint at the city center (by the ruins, buses come every 20 minutes) and Buhrint National Park (admission to the park/ ruins is 700 lek) is the last stop (it takes about 30 minutes, 200 lek ~ $2 USD). To get to Ksamil, you take that same bus a short distance from the ruins (just ask the driver) or you also probably could walk (it costs 200 lek every time you board the bus).  In Ksamil, there’s a billion beaches to chose from and we didn’t have a systematic method for choosing the best place to plop.  Most appear to be associated with restaurants but we used them and no one seemed to have a problem with it. Tour companies also run chartered buses to these locations.
If YOU want to go to Blue Eye: From Saranda, catch the public bus to Gjirokaster or Tirana (the land route) at the city center (by the ruins, buses come every hour or so).  It’s about a 20-30 minute ride (200 lek).  Find some way to tell the driver that you want to stop at Blue Eye (Tomi wrote us a sticky note to give to the driver or find a local translator). It takes about a half hour, then you need to walk about 15 minutes from the road, pay 50 leks to enter and it’s a nice stroll around the shaded spring. There’s not an enormous amount to see but you can rent a paddleboat or enjoy a drink/snack at one of the restaurants.

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